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Dennis, John, and Father James Cahalan


The oldest references in the Cahalan genealogical information--or at least that part of it which has survived in possession of our family--traces our ancestry back to James and Mary Mulfahy Cahalan, who settled in Wyandotte, MI, soon after 1857 and from whom the Wyandotte branch of the family descends. Until very recently, no known record existed of James and Mary’s immediate families--no siblings’ or parents’ names or dates were preserved by the Wyandotte Cahalans.  As a result, our family had an “Adam and Eve,” an original couple, without known antecedents.


Of course, this is impossible; James and Mary had parents, and almost certainly brothers and sisters, but the fact of their isolation in the historical record (we simply had no mention on record of any extended branches of our clan), and the tendency to trace ancestry through parental connections (a pattern that gives rise to the branching character of a ‘family tree’), seems to have discouraged discussion among the family of cousins outside of James and Mary’s line.


Then I decided to reorganize this site, the better to tell the story of the family, and the need to produce that narrative occasioned a few discoveries.  A reference in the obituary of Catherine Cahalan Norton in the scrapbooks kept by her brother, John C. Cahalan, Sr., mentions that “Father James Cahalan, her cousin was sub-deacon” at her funeral. Given Father John’s last name, he would have to have been the son of Catherine’s father--James’ brother. Similarly, the availability of census records indexed and automated for easy search at allowed me to access records of James and Mary’s parents, which revealed two of James’ siblings.


In the process, I was also involved in writing narrative histories of James and Mary’s children, particularly Anna Cahalan McInerney and Bridget Cahalan Needham (who would certainly have known facts about the family that have since fallen out of memory), and several clues to other branches of the Cahalan family in Michigan began to come to light through sources related to them.


This is precisely the sort of activity for which this site was reorganized: the recovery of ‘lost’ information and the amendment of the family history.


The reference to Father James Cahalan and, in a genealogical account by Sr. Aline Needham (granddaughter of Bridget Cahalan Needham), a reference to her great-aunt Mary marrying a “John Cahalan (somehow related to our branch but I do not know how),” necessitated a look into the immediate family of James Cahalan. It was in this search that James’ records at proved a link to two ‘lost’ branches of the family.


It turns out that James was one of three brothers.  His parents, Patrick Cahalan and Julia Heahan (for whom no birth and death dates seem to survive--though it is pleasantly interesting to note that the name Julia occurs among children in the family for the next three or four generations), had three sons: James (1808 - 1883), Dennis (1822 - 1906), and John (1829 - 1895).  It is interesting to note that James is three-quarters of a generation older than his next-oldest sibling; either the historical record is incomplete (a family of their place and time with only three children, all boys, is unlikely) or infant mortality was a particularly dire circumstance in Patrick and Julia’s family--which could have proved a spur to immigration. In any case, the difference in age among the brothers could also have been a contributing factor to the branches of the Cahalan family falling out of touch over the succeeding generations; both John and Dennis seem to have married fairly late, to women at least a decade younger than themselves, and cousins across the three branches of the Cahalan family would have been a whole generation apart in age and a day’s ride distant, given the places in which they settled.


Dennis is mentioned in the 1880 United States Federal Census, in which he is listed, at the age of 55, as a farmer in Hubbardston, in Ionia County, Michigan. His wife, Mary, is 44. They have three children: Patrick, 24 years old, and Sarah, 19 (both she and her brother are listed as having been born in New York); and Julia, three years old, born in 1877 in Michigan. Once again, as with James and Mary, the pattern of births would seem to indicate a disruption in the family’s circumstances, and it can be noted that James and Mary Mulfahy Cahalan only moved to Michigan upon Mary’s emigration from Ireland in 1857--previously, James and his oldest son had lived and worked in New York, earning the money that would provide passage for the rest of their family.


This raises the possibility of a Cahalan family settlement in New York, and a subsequent, perhaps separate, migration of several branches. A letter from Marion Cahalan to John McInerney places James and his oldest soon after their immigration in Lima, New York, where it recounts that John died in his teens. If Dennis and Mary produced two children in New York--the reference is probably to the state and not the city, since evidence on the census form is rather general, geographically--it would seem clear that the difference in the children’s ages would establish a household presence there for at least five years. Patrick’s birth takes place at about the time Mary Mulfahy Cahalan would have joined her husband before the move west, and we might assume that James and Dennis (at least) were located near each other soon after settling in their new country. If this conjecture is accurate, then James, as the oldest and perhaps first to emigrate, had established a family foothold in New York, toward which other family members migrated, and was the first of the brothers to leave it, traveling to Michigan to take a job in the E.B. Ward Rolling Mill in Wyandotte.  


It is not hard to suppose that Dennis and John moved after him only gradually, Dennis having already started a family of his own. (John’s’ family was considerably younger than Dennis’, and he was likely married only after his arrival in Michigan.) We do not know what prompted the family’s move to Michigan, though my grandfather, Joseph Cahalan, once implied in a personal conversation that the Ward Mill was advertising for workers in New York. For James, at least, the economic situation must have seemed brighter in Wyandotte; his brothers would also eventually relocate, settling in Hubbardston and returning to the family farming with which we presume they grew up.


For James’ and Dennis’ brother John, an earlier source, the 1870 US Federal Census, exists. Ten years before either of his older brothers are first officially recorded in Wyandotte and Hubbardston respectively, he is listed, at 42, as a farmer--also married to a woman named Mary, 31. John and Mary’s children are Julia, 4; Michael, 2; and James (the future priest), two months old. Another member of the household, fourteen year old Patrick Gahan (perhaps a younger brother of Mary) is also included in the census.  By the 1880 US Census, John and Mary’s family has seen the addition of three more children: John, age 7; Patrick, age 5, and Dennis, 1. Patrick Gahan is no longer mentioned--perhaps there was simply no more room! In any case, he would have been all of 24 years old by then. (Incidentally, it is clear that, as a family, the Cahalans of this generation consistently named their children after aunts and uncles.)


Perhaps it is this John Cahalan’s son John (junior, who would have been born about 1875) who would later marry Mary Needham (whose brother Patrick would in turn marry Bridget Cahalan, tying this branch of the Needham family twice to different branches of the Cahalans.  


Speaking of this interrelation, it is worth mentioning that every immigrant member of the extended family--the Cahalans, the Needhams, the McInerneys and others--were born in County Tipperary, Ireland, and that their children consistently married the children of other immigrants whose families must have known each other--if not been related to some degree--in the old country, and who seem all to have settled in the Hubbardston area. This should not be surprising, however: villages, particularly in countries marked by poverty and a lack of physical and economic mobility, tend over time to become thickly interrelated; the pool of available prospects for marriage in any given generation would necessarily not be large. (On our first trip to Ireland my grandfather mentioned that, as he first traveled through Tipperary, he frequently saw people in public who bore an uncanny resemblance to older, often deceased, relatives. Perhaps a near-tribal ‘family resemblance’ originates where our branch of the Cahalans originated in Ireland.)  


Perhaps this situation reflects the well-known sociological observation that immigrants tend to move toward and settle with people whom they already know. In this instance it is easy to see that several families emigrated at about the same time from Count Tipperary, settled together first in New York, then later moved to Michigan, where the majority took up farming in Hubbardston--while the Wyandotte Cahalans, descended from Mary Mulfahy and James Cahalan, lived and worked on the somewhat distant Detroit River.


One of the more haunting realizations in pursuing this line of genealogical inquiry has been that, until nearly the current century, members of the Cahalan family in Wyandotte (principally Marion, Katherine and Richard, John C. Cahalan’s latest-surviving children), must have known something about their great-aunts and great-uncles (not to mention nearly a dozen cousins) in Hubbardston. In fact, their mother, Anna Hogan Cahalan, had also come from that area, and must have been acquainted with those branches of the family even before her marriage. This raises the issue of how two whole lines of a family can disappear--not only from the historical record through death and migration but, more crucially, from the memory of relatives nearby--the last of whom, Katherine, died in 1985.  Her sister Marion makes no mention of these branches in her letter.

On the other hand, clues to these ‘lost’ relations can perhaps be found among the existing family artifacts, and with this idea in mind a few photographs in The Grey Velvet Album, the family photo album of John C. and Anna Hogan Cahalan, can be tentatively identified. If the album was first assembled around 1883, the year John C. and Anna were married--as seems likely, since it contains their wedding portrait as one of its earliest selections--then a few previously unlabeled portraits in the album may be of Dennis and John. It also seems unlikely that, if photographs of them existed, they would not be included in this source and, in fact, two such pictures, of subjects bearing a distinct family resemblance--to the Cahalans in general and to each other--do exist.

Dennis would have been 61 at the time, and John 54, and the pictures to the right seem to be of about the appropriate ages. The two men shown in them bear a strong resemblance to each other--particularly in their mouths and eyes--and they do not look dissimilar to the formal portrait which is the only identified image we possess of their brother James. Neither, however, are shown elsewhere in the album--no family groups help to identify them, or others, as the Hubbardston branch of the family, and while it is likely that their wives and children are among the others pictured in the album, we cannot with any certainty identify them as such. The picture of the older man is revealed, by a photographer’s imprint on the reverse, to have been taken in Monroe; the other is from a studio in Detroit.  Both seem to have cultivated similar beards, which may reflect a common heritage. There is also the possibility, however, that these are two photographs of the same individual, separated by some years.


Similarly, one woman pictured in the album is shown in a photograph the imprint of which identifies it as having been taken in Ionia, and as she appears to be of about the same generation as these others, she may be either Mary, the wife of Dennis (who would have been 50 in 1883), or Mary, the wife of John (43 at the time).   This attribution, however, is much less certain than the two above, and since she also appears nowhere else in the album, it can be suggested that she is the wife of one of the two brothers based only on her age and the photographer’s imprint, as well as a lack of resemblance to other Cahalans of her generation.


(However, it is also possible that the picture at right shows Bridget Cahalan Needham, James’ daughter and Dennis and John’s niece.  James’ brothers were considerably younger than he (Dennis was fourteen years younger; John twenty-one), and since both married women about a decade younger than themselves, the generational overlap is pronounced in this part of the family.   All three women--the two Marys and Bridget--were all in their early forties in the early 1880‘s, when the album was supposedly first compiled.  Several children’s photographs also bear imprints from photographers in Ionia, and would seem almost certainly to be the children of Dennis and John.  They can be seen in The Grey Velvet Album page on this site.)


It would be interesting to pursue these branching families, to trace the descendants of Dennis and John Cahalan, and to possibly locate a group of distant cousins (other Cahalans exist around Philadelphia, in Wisconsin, and in points west, as a Google search reveals), but that project is beyond the scope of this site which concerns the immediate family of James and Mary’s son John C. Cahalan, Sr.  However, since the Reverend James Cahalan figures briefly in the later story, and since as a priest he has no descendants, it is worth following his life as far as the historical record at allows.


James was born on 29 March 1870 in North Plains Township, Ionia County.  He is listed in the 1880 US Federal Census, and subsequently in the censuses of 1910, 1920 and 1930.  There is no known record of his seminary training, but it was in all likelihood local, since he served in parish churches in mid- and southeastern Michigan for the whole of his career. In 1910, at the age of forty, he is located in Marshall, Michigan, where he is listed as the head of a household composed of himself, Jennie Donaldson (a widow, age 40), and her daughter Louise Donaldson, 12. Jennie Donaldson, also born in Ireland, emigrated in 1872 and is listed as ‘Housekeeper, Rectory;’ Louise was born in Canada. There is no record here stating to which parish church this rectory was attached, but the pattern of a priest living with a widowed housekeeper and her daughter is a typical one.


Though we cannot be sure, we may have an early picture of James. The Grey Velvet Album contains an unidentified portrait of a priest of about the correct age.  It is at right.  As discovered recently by Jeffrey Cahalan, a picture displayed at St. Joseph's Parish in Trenton, MI shows a Father James Cahalan, with the dates 1895 to 1899--his tenure there, almost certainly, though the man depicted (bottom, right) is much older.  (This might only reflect when the picture was collected, which could have been retrospectively, since it seems to be part of a display of pastors over the history of the parish.)


By 1920, at the (incorrectly-listed) age of 48, Father James has moved to Ann Arbor, where the census records him living with Walter J. Rottock, 31, another priest, and Agnes Scully, 60, their housekeeper. Again, no mention is made of the parish church to which their house is attached.


In 1930, he is located in Detroit, living with John J. Hunt, who is designated the head of the household, while James is named Assistant--perhaps a reference to his approaching retirement, though Franklin R. Hay, 28, another household member, is also Assistant. This might mean only that Fr. Hunt was the designated parish priest, while James and Fr. Hay played subordinate roles. A servant, Anna Kenny, 48, also lives with them.


After this point, Father James drops out of the historical record. No doubt he kept in touch with the Wyandotte Cahalans--priests in the family seem to have figured prominently at milestone occasions--and the scrapbooks of his cousin, John C. Cahalan, Sr. might mention him, and will be noted here, as they are added to this site.  



First published 24 January 2010; last revised 05 March 2019.

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